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Video Above: How The Pentagon & CIA Align Efforts Improve Innovation, Train Leaders for Future War

By Kris Osborn, President - Center for Military Modernization

The US Air Force is again test-firing Minuteman III ICBMs to demonstrate nuclear readiness after pausing a few tests in a deliberate effort to de-escalate nuclear rhetoric in response to Russia’s nuclear threats.

An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM carrying three re-entry vehicles traveled 4,200 miles during the test demonstration flight to verify that, despite the age of the decades-old missile, the Pentagon does maintain readiness and operate a viable ground-launched nuclear weapon.

Minuteman III ICBM

“Air Force Global Strike Command Airmen launched an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with three test re-entry vehicles from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, on Sept. 7 at 1:13 a.m.,” an Air Force statement says.

The idea of continued Minuteman III ICBM test launches is to verify that the decades-old upgraded ICBM can still function as a nuclear deterrent and hold adversaries at risk. However, despite literally decades of upgrades, an interesting new study from the RAND Corporation finds that the 1960s & 1970s-era ICBM simply cannot effectively counter new missile defense technologies being developed by great-power adversaries.

The Sentinel ICBMs will replace the 400 Minuteman III ICBMs currently in service for more than 50 years in Air Force missile fields at F.E. Warren Air Force Base (AFB), Wyoming; Malmstrom AFB, Montana; and Minot AFB, North Dakota, a report from the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center says.

Although U.S. defense officials emphasize that the Minuteman III is able to fulfill

its mission, the system is anticipated to have “increasing difficulty penetrating future adversary defenses,”according to the 2018 NPR (Nuclear Posture Review), the RAND report, “Modernizing the U.S. Nuclear Triad: The Rationale for a New Intercontinental Ballistic Missile | RAND” says.

It would make sense that additional targeting technology would be needed in light of a number of advancements made by potential adversaries. China, for instance, is known to operate road-mobile ICBM launchers with multiple re-entry vehicles able to pinpoint multiple targets from a single missile, something which enables rapid targeting transitions and repositioning prior to launch if needed.

“Senior military officials have made clear that a comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. ICBM force is needed to increase targeting flexibility; to mitigate improvements in adversary missile defenses; and to strengthen defenses against cyberattacks that could undermine the system’s responsiveness and degrade communication in a crisis,” the Rand study says.

China is now also building ground-based ICBM silos to fortify its nuclear arsenal with fixed launch sites. Such a massive increase in nuclear weapons would seem to require a need for larger numbers of nuclear weapons to respond in the event of a massive, “bolt-out-of-the-blue” attack.

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“The number and types of targets that U.S. nuclear forces might need to hold at risk to deter an adversary's use of nuclear weapons in a crisis or conflict are changing—and can be expected to continue to change in complex and unpredictable ways over the next several decades,” the report says.

Another reason newer targeting technology is needed, the study specifies, is because adversaries are increasingly developing advanced missile defenses and countermeasures designed to intercept, stop or defend against incoming ICBMs. Therefore, in order to establish a credible deterrent and succeed in holding China at risk, advanced guidance technology, flight trajectory enhancements and paradigm-changing targeting ability.

“That thing is so old that in some cases the drawings don’t exist anymore,” Adm. Charles Richard, Commander of US Strategic Command, told a January 2021 virtual conference audience according to the RAND report, stating unequivocally: “You cannot life extend the Minuteman [III].”

While the RAND report says the exact nature of the technological enhancements to the GBSD have not been described publicly, the Rand study details a number of key performance parameters and enabling technologies that are informing and being integrated into the GBSD.

“The GBSD program includes new missile and guidance systems, launch facilities, command centers, and test and integration facilities, as well as modifications to ensure alignment with enterprise wide improvements of NC3 systems (command and control),” the study states.

Through a digital engineering process wherein computer simulations are able to replicate key weapons performance parameters and make technological assessments, the GBSD is being engineered to bring new levels of reliability, targeting and guidance technologies to sustain the U.S. ground-fired ICBM fleet well into the 2070s and beyond. Software upgrades, for instance, can add new guidance systems, reliability technologies and targeting sensors to the weapon as new innovations emerge, an important factor given that the new ICBM slated to serve for decades and operate against a new generation of enemy threats and countermeasures.

The possibility for ongoing modernization was intentionally built into early designs of the weapon, due to the use of digital engineering techniques able to replicate technological detail and help establish common computer standards enabling continued upgrades. It would make sense that the weapons were built with a specific mind to ongoing modernization, given that the U.S. Air Force has a long history of upgrading and maintaining ICBMs.

Air Force 3-star Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, did tell Warrior in an interview years ago that the emerging GBSD was being engineered for increased reliability, flight trajectory and targeting.

During his discussion with Warrior years ago, Weinstein explained the rationale behind the Pentagon’s concept of deterrence and the need to maintain a strong, ready nuclear arsenal. Weinstein cited the work of a famous 1940s World War II-era philosopher named Bernard Brodie. Brodie, a Yale Professor in 1945, envisioned what is now understood as a famous paradox central to nuclear deterrence. 

Throughout human history, weapons have always been created to “use” against or “kill” an enemy. The served a specific purpose and had a specific function. The “intent” has always been to “use” them in conflict. Nuclear weapons, however, are entirely different as, arguably for the first time in human history, they are weapons intended “not” to be used by rather “stop,” “prevent,” or “avoid” military confrontation. Essentially, nuclear weapons are built with the intent and hope that they will “never be used.”

Brodies 1946 Essay, called “Implications for Military Policy,” and Essay in The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and the World Order published by Yale Universities’ Institute of International Studies, emerged just following the nuclear attacks upon Hiroshima ending WWII. His basic premise is clear – the promise of total, catastrophic destruction – prevents war.

"If the atomic bomb can be used without fear of substantial retaliation in kind, it will clearly encourage aggression. So much the more reason, therefore, to take all possible steps to assure that multilateral possession of the bomb, should that prove inevitable, be attended by arrangements to make as nearly certain as possible that the aggressor who uses the bomb will have it used against him.If such arrangements are made, the bomb cannot but prove in the net a powerful inhibition to aggression,” Brodie writes in the Yale essay, published by Air Force Magazine.

Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.